12.26.2008

Pirates: China in Africa

The Chinese Navy is making its way towards Africa to help deal with the pirates off the coast of Somali, who are attacking ships in the Gulf of Aden.

Leaving aside the foreign policy implications, this is interesting as it's the first time that official Chinese ships have been sent there by the government since the Ming Dynasty.

The last such mission was that of Zheng He [Cheng Ho in Wade-Giles], sent there by the Yongle Emperor as part of his Sixth Voyage in 1421-2.

This is a later Chinese sailing chart based on one drawn by Zheng He.

It's sideways compared to modern maps, with North to the left. The coast of Africa is along the lower edge, and India is at the top; to the left is the Gulf, with the Indian Ocean to the right.

Unfortunately the next emperor, Hongxi, ordered the destruction of many documents relating to trade because of he wanted China to close itself off. As well as his naval charts, the records of Zheng He's Sixth and Seventh Voyages were destroyed. This has led to some silly ideas that he 'discovered' America in 1421.

Even without the written documents of the voyage, we have other records such as this scroll depicting a giraffe that Zheng He brought back from Somalia.
This is one of many Qing copies of the Ming original painted by the court painter Shen Du (1357-1434).

Shen was, as so many Chinese painters, also a poet, and composed these verses about the mythical beast (chi lin) he had painted:

In the corner of the western seas, in the stagnant waters of a great morass,
Truly was produced a chi lin, whose shape was as high as fifteen feet.
With the body of a deer and the tail of an ox, and a fleshy, boneless horn,
With luminous spots like a red cloud or purple mist.
Its hoofs do not tread on living beings and in itts wanderings it carefully selects its ground.
It walks in stately fashion and in its every motion it observes a rhythm,
Its harmonious voice sounds like a bell or a musical tube.
Gentle is this animal, that has in antiquity been seen but once,
The manifestation of its divine spirit rises up to heaven's abode.

What's interesting about Zheng He is that he was a member of the Muslim minority in China. When he went to East Africa he was making in reverse the journey made by Sa'ad ibn Abi Waqqas almost six hundred years earlier.

Sa'ad was Mohammed's maternal uncle, and one of the first converts. After Mohammed's death he took part in the Battle of the Camel, fighting with Aisha against Ali, making him one of the great figures in Sunni Islam. Under the Caliphs he continued to be important, and was part of the Council of that chose Uthman Ibn Affan as the Third Caliph.

Uthman sent Sa'as on an embassy to the Tang Emperor Gaozong in 651, with the aim of introducing Islam to China. The emperor agreed to the construction of a mosque in Guangzhou (Canton), and Islam flourished. The Muslim traders became important for Chinese trade, bringing the famous Ming blue and white pottery the Middle East where it was copies and exported to Europe.

This shard of Ming porcelain, for example, was excavated at Fustat in Egypt. [source]

CHINA'S ISLAMIC HERITAGE
- Chinese Heritage Newsletter

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